Dr Akhilesh Kumar is a Wildlife Biologist and a dedicated conservationist. He did his Doctoral research on Threats and conservation of House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in and around Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. At present, he is associated with the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society as its Secretary. He adores birding and exploration of new habitats. He is passionate about photography and likes to spend time capturing all forms of lives. He is also a teacher, holding a position in the Education Service, Uttar Pradesh where he continues his passion by disseminating knowledge of flora and fauna by means of lectures, field trips, awareness programmes, workshops, bird watching, nature walks and training to a vast network of teachers, students, and local communities…
Q: You have done your thesis on house sparrows. What made you select this common bird species?
When I decided to select a topic for my thesis, the rapid decline in house sparrows was a serious issue, and not only the scientific society but even the common people felt very strongly about it. After going through the grey literature, I felt that something should be done for House Sparrow that is closely associated with human habitation and cultivation throughout the world from historic time. In fact, the bird's scientific and common name refers to its association with humans. The Latin word Passer, like the English word "sparrow", is a term for small active birds, coming from a root word referring to speed. The Latin word domesticus means "belonging to the house", a reference to its association with humans. House sparrows are perhaps the first wild birds to be associated closely with human beings without being domesticated. So, in spite of being a common bird, the plight of this little bird made me work for the causes of its decline and the conservational measures that could be implemented.
Q: Why are house sparrows important to us?
Every small or large animal on this planet has its crucial role and value in the ecosystem environment. Likewise, House Sparrow is also an important bird that plays a vital role in human life and his surrounding environment. To start with, it is a significant link in food chain. It is a plinth food for most of the Birds of Prey. Coming to the next, House Sparrow feeds on a variety of insects like beetles, caterpillars, dipterans, arthropods, aphids, grasshoppers and crickets. These are the most abundant food for their nestlings so they act as important pest control species. It also feeds on mosquitoes, thus contributes in preventing the diseases caused by mosquitoes. In the chick stage, House sparrows eat insects from kitchen garden and by this the garden become free from harmful insects. There is no need of using pesticides and insecticides that are harmful for the environment as well as human health. Health effects of pesticides can cause both acute and chronic problems. Their absence may lead to crop lost due to various pests, thus leading to food crisis as happened in China during the “Four Pest Campaign” during 1958 to 1962. The humble House sparrows are nature's bio-indicators and enjoy a historical relationship with humans for thousands of years. They also help in seed dispersal.
Q: House sparrows started declining in many parts of the World including Indian States. What are the probable causes for this?
There is amalgamation of reasons for the decline of House sparrows
• Loss of nesting opportunity- The traditional architecture provided the appropriate nesting space for sparrows in wall holes, roof thatches and crevices of old houses. New Architectural buildings are unlikely to provide suitable cavities for nesting.
• Depleting food resources for adult sparrows: Earlier grains were sold in grocery shops, now there are malls and modern stores. The grains spilt outside the small grocery shops were a major source of grains for birds like sparrows. Traditional method of cleaning and drying of grains was another source of food. Packed and ready to cook food products have no depleted these opportunities for sparrows.
• Depleting food resources for chicks: The previous kitchen gardens have been replaced by ornamental plants which support less insect life that forms major food items for sparrow chicks during the first 5-6 days after hatching. Excessive use of insecticides and pesticides in farming practices have resulted in low abundance of arthropods in rural areas. In urban areas, wasteland are also decreasing due to continuous city development plans with no green spaces.
• Change in human life style: Cattle keeping has declined to a great extent. Cattle shed served as an excellent foraging site for the sparrows. The cattle owners fed the cattle with a mixture of husk and several types of grains like wheat, bajra, barley, unused grinded pulses etc. The sparrows use to get grains from the cattle feed. They also fed on the undigested grains in the cattle dung.
• Lack of roosting sites: Roosting sites are as important as the breeding sites for any species.
For roosting sparrows prefer small and bushy native plants but due to urbanization these plants are cut down for making big complexes and buildings. The continuous trimming and pruning of trees and shrubs have decreased the availability of proper roosting space. Roosting in unsafe places increases the predation rate.
• Public intolerance: With day-to-day modernization people are becoming more self-centred and intolerant towards other species. In many places it is observed that the existing open spaces or crevices are closed or blocked by cement, clothes or sealing tape. Sometimes people also remove the nests because they feel that the house looks unclean due to the nesting material falling on the floor. These practices exclude sparrows from getting potential nesting sites.
• Peoples’ misconception: There is a misconception that the consumption of house sparrows increases the human (male) fertility. In many places they are also used for medicinal purposes.
• Lack of public knowledge: People are ignorant about the habitat requirements of House Sparrow; as a consequence, they disturb and destroy the nesting, roosting and feeding sites or even complete destruction of House sparrow habitats.
• Electromagnetic Radiation from Mobile phone towers: Studies by some researchers suggest that the electromagnetic radiation causes irritation, reduces the reproductive capacity as well as the hatchlings are either destroyed or born with serious deformities in birds. This needs long term studies with collaboration of various departments.
Q: How can we solve the problem of unavailability of nesting sites/space with the developmental projects and modernization?
The provision of artificial nest boxes is a good option for solving the problem of unavailability of nesting sites. These can be of different types. You can prepare them from the shoe boxes or other cardboard boxes that we get during online as well as off-line shopping. We can also use small earthen pots. These are very cheap and mostly available as waste material in our homes. The wooden nest box is costly, but if you can afford, well and good otherwise the other two options are always there. Other birds can be avoided by keeping the entrance hole of nest boxes up to 3.2 cm in diameter. So, by keep in mind certain scientific precautions, we can solve the problem of unavailability of the nesting space. The feeding and roosting sites are equally important for the survival of House sparrows. So, we need to plant bushy trees and shrubs such as Babul (Acacia nilotica), Kaner (Thevetia peruviana), Ber (Zizyphus mauritiana), Lemon (Citrus aurantifolia), Guava (Psidium guajava), Pomegranate (Punica granatum), Custard apple (Annona squamosa), Bottle brush (Callistemon citrinus), Chandni (Tabernaemontana divaricata), Chameli (Jasminum officinale), Mehendi (Lawsonia inermis), Bougainvillea, Madhu Malti (Combretum indicum), Bamboo tree etc. These types of spiny vegetation protect them from various predators. We need to have kitchen gardens and lawns with the native plant species and no insecticides. This will help the parent birds to get the protein rich insects for the chicks.
Q: Can you share some interesting behavioral facts about sparrows?
Dust bathing and water bathing are most interesting and most frequently seen behaviours in House sparrows. Dust bathing is also known as sand bathing. Dusting behaviour of birds helps them in maintaining their plumage. Birds use dust bath and other activities as a part of feather care strategies. Frequent dusting helps to maintain an optimum amount of oil on the feathers. The main purpose of taking water bath is to clean the body and maintain the body temperature. A peculiar behaviour of House sparrows is to peck the un-cemented walls in the localities so as to obtain grit from the walls. Insoluble grit aids in digestion while soluble grit is the major source of minerals in its diet and is essential for the wellbeing and successful breeding. Grit provides calcium that helps the female to lay good quality of eggs. It also helps in the digestion of whole intact seeds.
Q: 20th March has been dedicated as World Sparrow Day. Please tell us why we should celebrate it and how?
20th March is dedicated to bring back the little bird that we have seen around us since our childhood. This day is to give a thought how unsafe the environment is becoming for other species because of us. The development authorities of all the cities should join the celebration and ensure that some open areas are left as they are i.e., no unnecessary cementing in the name of development. Creating awareness should be a priority. Some of the approaches that can be used to communicate key messages to the public includes popular scientific articles, Newspaper articles, school programmes, popular talks, social media, webinars, seminars, workshops, competitions, awareness procession, installation of artificial nest boxes, plantation of native thorny shrubs and trees, provision of drinking water, availability of water and dust bath spaces.